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Killing and Cartoons

By David Rodin

“I don’t believe that a cartoon is worth a single life. The problem is that there are quite a few people who believe otherwise and then we are confronted with this dilemma: what do we do?”

So said Flemming Rose, who first published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten in 2005. This year Paris and Copenhagen learned that there are still people willing to kill for cartoons. The dilemma of what to think about their publication remains. What to do, indeed?

Let’s start with some pretty uncontroversial observations. First, it is close to foundational in a liberal society that individuals and religious groups do not have a right against being ridiculed. What is more, though unpleasant, a modicum of ridicule benefits those ridiculed: nothing stultifies like an excess of reverence that brooks no humour or criticism. Second, even if ridiculing Islamic faith did violate some right, the shootings in Paris and Copenhagen would be so absurdly disproportionate to the supposed offence as to be utterly unjustified. On these plausible assumptions, it looks like there is no dilemma: publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims is clearly permissible.

But not so fast. Moral theory requires that, in order to be permissible, every action must pass a test of proportionality that weighs the relevant good effects of an act against its relevant bad effects.   When the bad effects outweigh the good effects by a sufficient margin, then even a presumptively permissible action can become impermissible.

Consider a fanciful example. Suppose you know a vain and highly unstable character who is extraordinarily touchy about his receding hairline. Moreover, he owns an automatic weapon and has been known to become unhinged and discharge it recklessly in public places when agitated. Clearly it would be profoundly wrong to tease this character about his hair in these circumstances.

Notice that this is not because the vain man has a right against being teased (you don’t owe vain men any duty not to tease them). It is rather that one of the foreseeable consequences of teasing him is to endanger the lives of others, and this bad consequence is so disproportionate that it renders the action impermissible.

“Suppose you know a vain and highly unstable character who is extraordinarily touchy about his receding hairline. Moreover, he owns an automatic weapon and has been known to become unhinged and discharge it recklessly in public places when agitated. Clearly it would be profoundly wrong to tease this character about his hair in these circumstances.”

But hold on, you might say, by teasing the vain man I don’t intend to endanger the public. What is more, my teasing wouldn’t endanger anyone at all if the vain man were doing what he ought to do. The problem only arises because of the wrongful action of someone else. Why are you holding me responsible for the outcome?

It is true that we are (in general) less responsible for the unintended consequences of our action than for their intended consequences. Moreover we are (in general) less responsible for the consequences of our action that arises from the wrongful intervening acts of others.

Nonetheless, we are still somewhat responsible for such consequences. This case shows us that when the bad effects are sufficiently bad, and the good effects are sufficiently trivial, this can create powerful moral reasons against doing something (even something that you have a liberty right to do it and even when the bad effects are discounted because unintended and arising from wrongful intervening action).

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this fanciful case is a lot like the case of cartoons depicting the Prophet. As we noted above, no religious group has a right not be ridiculed (in fact most religions are objectively pretty ridiculous). But a foreseeable effect of publically ridiculing Islam is that innocent people will be killed. This effect is so bad that it outweighs any good that might be achieved by publishing the cartoons (I have read them and they aren’t particularly funny). That is true even when we discount the harms for lack of intention and intervening agency. Looked at this way, it seems that publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims is clearly impermissible.  As Rose says, no cartoon is worth a single life.

But this too seems insufficient. One way to express the unease is that the preceding argument ignores the political dimension. The murders in Paris and Copenhagen were intended to cow European citizens from exercising rights that they clearly possess. If we assert that it is morally impermissible to exercise our liberties when this will cause others to commit murder, then we seem to undermine those liberties. Even worse than that, if we censor of our own speech and action, we may ourselves become complicit in the intended ends of the murderers – to silence dissent and ridicule.

It is, indeed, hard not to feel admiration for the courage of figures like Salmon Rushdie and the Charlie Hebdo staff who risk their very lives for a conception of civic liberty. But of course it is not only their own lives that they risk. Six people completely unrelated to Charlie Hebdo died in Paris.

“The murders in Paris and Copenhagen were intended to cow European citizens from exercising rights that they clearly possess. If we assert that it is morally impermissible to exercise our liberties when this will cause others to commit murder, then we seem to undermine those liberties.”

An important question is therefore: how else might we honour and assert those liberties without risking the blood of innocents? One obvious response is to maintain and to celebrate the legal liberty to ridicule, even as we acknowledge the moral case for silence.   The legal liberty to say even what is false and offensive is a cherished prize of the enlightenment. It should be defended and laws that contradict it, such as the prohibition on holocaust denial, should be dismantled.

Second, individuals like Flemming Rose could assert the moral right to publish offensive material like the Prophet cartoons, without actually publishing them. The right way forward, one might think, is to assert the dignity of the liberty without feeling compelled to exercise it.

Formally speaking, one can possess a liberty to do X, even if one chooses not to do X. But is this true in general, across a society? Is a liberty that is consistently not exercised (due to strong moral constraints stemming from the wrongful acts of others) really a liberty in any meaningful sense at all? How will we know that we possess this liberty, and what role will it play in our moral and social life?

These are difficult questions. Once a liberty is publically challenged in this way, it becomes much harder for society to recover a place of confident self-restraint. Beyond the murders, one of the profound wrongs that the killers inflict on us is to place us in a dilemma from which there is no easy escape.

We know that our own historical response to these challenges has been to slowly and painfully build a consensus around modernity with its protection of individual liberty and private conscience. But, globally, we are still a long way from that consensus, and the prosecution in France of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for a Facebook post sympathetic to the Paris attacks, shows that even in the West this project remains incomplete and contested.

[This post has also been published at The Individualisation of War Project website and at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs website.]

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

Published 25th May 2015

David Rodin

Professor of Political Science at the European University Institute and Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for the Ethics and Law of Armed Conflict. Affiliated Researcher at the Stockholm Centre


  1. Robert Seddon

    I see this piece was posted over a year ago. I wonder whether a similar one would have been written post-Bataclan.

  2. Peter Villiers

    Actions and consequences
    From Peter Villiers
    3 August 2016

    Dear Readers

    I read David Rodin’s article with great interest, and it stimulated the following thoughts, which go beyond the free speech argument, but expand the dilemma to which it leads.

    In essence, A carries out an act which although at least arguably inoffensive in itself, and indeed justifiable under human rights doctrine (in Rodin’s example, to make fun of Mohammed under the right to free speech and the benefits arising from free debate) leads to unfortunate consequences – in this case that B, who has been offended by A’s action, which he regards as blasphemy or some such crime, exacts revenge upon A, or indeed upon an entirely innocent party, C.

    So, what does all this amount to, in simplified terms, and without taking the entire individual circumstances into account?

    A offends B, who takes revenge against C. A did not attack C, and is not, at least as far as a normal doctrine of moral responsibility is concerned, responsible for B’s actions. B is to blame for his acts in a court of law, and not A. Nevertheless, if A knew that his action was certain to offend B, and that the likely (or indeed, almost certain) result of his action would be that B would attack C, then A should have considered the likely consequences of his action before he put it into effect.

    (We might also have considered that the right to freedom of speech, under the European Convention on Human Rights, is a qualified one – but let us stick with the consequentialist argument.)

    A is, in some sense, responsible for what happens to C – just as he would be, arguably, if he had knowingly and recklessly provoked a mad dog – and Rodin discusses this to good effect in his review of the principle of proportionality.

    What, then, can I add to the debate? Simply an historical example which has led to considerable moral debate, not least as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre, and in drama as well as philosophical analysis.

    Ironically, the example comes once again from France.

    Let us suppose that a country, A (in this case France) has been invaded and defeated by another country, B (in this case, Nazi Germany – and the time is, of course, from 1940 to 1945.) Some French citizens have decided to carry out acts of resistance against the occupying power, up to and including arson, other acts of sabotage, and the taking of life.

    They consider these actions to be morally justified.

    (As to whether or not they are legally justified is another matter, which I leave to one side. After all, who makes the law?)

    The German occupying powers, to say the least of it, are not content with this state of affairs. They have branded the resistance as terrorism and its operatives as terrorists, whom they will hunt down and execute without compunction, using any means possible to do so – AND they will carry to reprisals, as an official and declared policy, against innocent French civilians (C) as a reaction to any act of what they brand as terrorism.

    So, A attacks B, who takes revenge on C. Who is responsible for the attack on C? Clearly, B. But, if A knew that it was likely to occur, was he justified in attacking B in the first place?

    Those of us who grew up, as I did, in the shadow of the Second World War, tended to absorb two beliefs. Firstly, that Nazi Germany was an horrendous creation; and secondly (and this was the influence of films and a sort of delayed propaganda, as much as anything) that the French Resistance was a wholly admirable (united, heroic, effective) organisation and that everything it did was justified.

    The first belief was true.

    The second has been questioned, as the revisionists have gone to work.

    Was the resistance justified?

    How are we to decide?

    Some of the questions that we apply to the notion of a just war, are in principle, perhaps, applicable to the justification of the reasons for an act or campaign of resistance; and we might ask when, if ever, its organisers asked themselves if they had a reasonable chance of success (and indeed, how else they might have devoted their surplus energies towards achieving an agreed goal.) But then we should have to define success, which could simply include the maintenance (or indeed creation) of a spirit of national morale – and we are in any case being ridiculously wise after the event.

    What we may be clear about, however, is that the Nazis made their official policy towards acts of resistance entirely clear; and that reprisals, whether official or spontaneous, were always a predictable consequence of acts of resistance.

    So, where are we? A attacks B, for reasons which can at least in some sense be justified; but knowing that B will then attack C.

    Is A justified? By what argument?

    And perhaps slightly more challengingly, at least from the psychological point of view, is this: how do people really make such decisions, in the heat of the moment? Do they weigh up the various factors, considering what they know and what they don’t, and reach a rational decision? Or are they simply aware, somehow, of something that needs to be done? Is this recklessness, or simply human nature? Are we, in reality, rational creatures?

    (I light the blue touch-paper.)

    (I withdraw.)

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